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FIVE SUMMER STORIES : The Veterinarian's Daughter

July 02, 1989|DAVID FREEMAN

IN THE SUMMER OF 1947, THE WEEKS BEFORE CARla's movie began shooting were the last days she had before she began her lifetime of work. Because she remembered those days the best, she later came to think of them as her childhood, an interlude before the cameras rolled and before she became famous. Her face and form were still tiny, but an older, knowing creature lurked not far from the surface. She seemed perfectly formed, but in miniature, like a pony, or a bonsai tree. Her personality was still passive and serene, as if she were biding her time, gathering her power. She was 7--an age when a child tends to take the world as she finds it, but also to assume that the world will always be as it is.

For Carla, the MGM lot in Culver City was a school, but for the adults, it was a workplace that looked more like a college campus than the factory to which the newspapers frequently compared it. The studio was populated with beautiful young people looking to take their youth and attractiveness to market and powerful older ones who could help them get what they sought. It gave the place a lubricious air, thick with hormones and availability. Rapaciousness was always there, hanging in the air as permanently as the heat. The studio was an erotic countinghouse and Carla would grow up in it, absorbing its customs and values through her pores. The studio would make her, and it would do the job before she could know it or judge it.

In preparation for what was to be the first of many Dr. George movies, in which Carla would play the veterinarian's daughter, Metro installed a barnyard menagerie. Carla was encouraged to get to know the horses, cows, ducks, chickens and pigs. She was also enrolled in Metro's Little Red School House, which was neither little nor red, but a white stucco bungalow with a tiled roof and Spanish arches.

When Carla started at the school, the other contract players her age were Sarah Milliken and Bobby Dryer. Sarah, an exquisite blonde, had been in several musicals and was considered the child with the brightest future. Bobby had the child actor's gift of looking younger than his age. He was tolerated by Sarah only because he was a contract player. Sarah always brought a hamster named Nibbles to class. Although Sarah had a cage for him, Nibbles was usually perched on her shoulder. Carla tried to listen in class, but most of the time she watched Nibbles as he climbed all over Sarah's back.

On Carla's first morning at the school, Miss Darrington, the principal, introduced her to the other students and then turned the elementary schoolchildren over to Mr. Danzig, their instructor. Sarah whispered, "We're the only girls." Carla could plainly see there were other girls--some were older, teen-agers in other classes, but some were grade-school age as well. As Carla was puzzling it through, Mr. Danzig, whom Sarah and Bobby called Skeeter, told the children to divide into groups. The day players broke into three groups while Sarah, Carla and Bobby stayed together, apart from the others. Sarah smiled at Carla, as if to say, "We're the ones who count." Carla knew to appear unassuming and to treat Sarah deferentially, as a wise, older sister. She knew by instinct that Sarah would be a valuable ally only as long as she didn't feel threatened. Carla listened to Sarah and then asked if she could pet Nibbles.

"He bites," Sarah said, turning down the request.

"Not me," Carla said, touching the jumpy hamster. "Hi, Nibbles. Want to play at the barn?"

"Not allowed," Sarah said, putting him in his cage.

After their morning class of reading and arithmetic, from 9 till noon, the children went to lunch at the commissary. They would march across the lot, accompanied by Skeeter Danzig, past Stages 21 and 5, left past the prop shop and the camera building. Then Skeeter would lead the children into the commissary, all green and chrome. On her first day, Carla saw a tattooed man eating a hamburger. He wore a robe to protect his costume, but ketchup was oozing down his face, dripping onto the purple image of a dragon whose claws crawled up the man's neck. "Not real tattoos, only from makeup," Sarah said dismissively. Carla nodded, but she wasn't sure about the difference between real tattoos and ones from makeup.

The children ate in a special alcove known as the romper room. It was a safe distance from the raucous, lewd jokes at the writers' table or the sometimes gamy gossip of the publicity table and far from the exclusive precincts of the directors' table, which was in a screened porch off the main room and where actors and producers as well as directors might be found, laughing and making bets on anything from East Coast football games to who might come through the door next. Within the romper room, Sarah had asked for and gotten a special table for contract players only; day children were not allowed to sit there.

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